On the surface, Clay Pigeons (Gramercy Pictures) has most of the elements necessary for a blockbuster: sex, violence, a talented cast and an ambiguous title. The film, however, is missing one key component – a premise.
From the get-go, Clay Pigeons flounders. Somewhere in Montana, best friends Earl (Gregory Sporleder) and Clay (Joaquin Phoenix, Inventing the Abbots) spend a hot, muggy day drinking beer, hanging the empty bottles from a barren tree and shooting them with hand guns – a typical activity for Montana folk, the audience assumes.
While engaged in their game of bottle shooting, Earl confronts Clay about the affair he is having with Earl’s wife, Amanda (Georgina Cates). Unable to continue with this knowledge and unwilling to let Clay live a peaceful life, Earl commits suicide with Clay’s gun. However, before pulling the trigger, he tells Clay that everyone will believe he killed Earl.
This opening scene sets the premise for the remainder of the film. Unfortunately, the not-too-bright Clay truly thinks he will be charged with Earl’s death. That notion propels the incidents that occur in the remainder of the film. The audience, however, sits in disbelief, wondering why Clay does not go tell the police. Doesn’t he realize suicide often can be recognized by the point of entry of the bullet? Or doesn’t he realize that Earl’s fingerprints will be on top of his fingerprints on the gun?
The film continues on this idiotic supposition. The plotline does become complex but only because of the number of dead bodies that amass. Essentially, Clay becomes the focus of an FBI investigation, led by Agent Dale Shelby (Janeane Garofalo, The Matchmaker), to find a Montana mass murderer who has killed seven women. As he squirms in the spotlight, Clay suspects his friend and town new-comer Lester Long (Vince Vaughn, Swingers) in the slayings. Through everything, the audience cannot overcome the fact that every problem would be avoided if Clay simply told the truth.
In addition to the script’s problems, Clay Pigeons uses random shots of nudity and tasteless sex scenes intended to enthrall the audience, but in the end, they disgust the viewer. The film exploits sex and thrives on prurient interests.
Although the film fails, Clay Pigeons offers a glimpse of genuine Hollywood talent. The members of the young cast become their characters and create individual idiosyncrasies and personalities for their characters. Within the strict confines the script imposes, Phoenix, Garofalo, Cates and Vaughn shine and exquisitely develop their characters.
While the audience does not understand why Clay does not tell the truth, Phoenix gives an excellent performance as the confused man. His facial expressions and body language reveal more about his character than any of his lines.
Appearing in less than half of the film, Garofalo easily delivers her few sarcastic lines. As Agent Shelby, she portrays a confident, intelligent woman. With this film, she moves beyond the cold-hearted or debased characters she played in movies such as Reality Bites and Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion.
Cates creates a loathsome woman whom the audience loves to despise. She captures the horrible qualities of Amanda and flaunts them for the audience. Her character elicits strong emotions from the viewer.
Despite the amazing performances of his co-stars, Vaughn warrants the greatest accolades. He demands attention and controls the film. His commanding screen presence forces the viewer to wonder what his character is doing even in the scenes in which he does not appear on-screen. Vaughn develops Lester to perfection and doles out an eerily convincing performance. With Vaughn’s innocent face and ability to smoothly deliver lines with a sweet voice, Lester springs to life to enthrall the audience.
Although the cast deserves recognition, a film cannot survive merely on the performances of the actors. Clay Pigeons not only lacks an intriguing plot, but is without the key component of an interesting storyline – a solid premise. Lacking a believable foundation, Clay Pigeons squanders its ambitious and talented cast.